- Marking Territory:Writing against Nation-based Identity in Yi Sang's "Lingering Impressions of a Mountain Village"
Despite the more than seventy years of nearly constant popular and academic attention given to his life and works since his passing, Yi Sang (1910-1937) remains something of an enigma. Best known today as a Korean modernist/experimentalist writer, Yi, née Kim Haegyŏng, was trained not as a writer but as an architect, and, to complicate matters, often wrote in Japanese. Thus, ironically, a significant portion of his poetic corpus-though proudly and rightfully claimed as Korean literature-is available to many Koreans only in translation.1 In addition, perhaps reflecting his architectural training, many of his poems appear more concerned with the numerical significances, geometric forms, and spatial arrangements of words on the page than with their syntactic formations. And even when one surmounts these obstacles to concentrate more fully on the words themselves, one is met by a vast [End Page 347] mixture of languages, concepts, and figures ranging from French to English, from physics to metallurgy, and from Rosa Luxemburg to Al Capone. All of these combine to create works that are hybridized, idiosyncratic, and particularly resistant to facile interpretation.2 Yi Sang's prose fiction presents a similar case, albeit without the added complication of having been written in Japanese.3 I would argue, however, that it is much more his idiosyncracy than the language in which he chose to write that makes him at times impenetrable. This, of course, would have been all the more true during the 1930s, when he was writing largely for an audience of bilingual ethnically Korean subjects of imperial Japan.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the numerous impediments to any semblance of a definitive reading for many of Yi's works, studies of his poetry and prose fiction abound.
His life and (a portion of) his works remain popular topics for established academics and graduate students alike. This is true outside of Korea as well. The volume Muae 1, to the best of my knowledge, was the first and only work of its kind published in the United States. It was completely devoted to the works of Yi Sang, yet gave scant attention to his essays. Here I should admit my own positionality as one who often values Korean literary works as primary sources for viewing certain aspects of daily life. Such works are not, of course, transparent windows upon the past, but nonetheless may provide certain personal and quotidian details absent from more "objective" genres and media.4 Furthermore, all [End Page 348] literary genres are not created equally with respect to their value as windows, or prisms.5 Though it is far beyond the scope of this essay to assess the absolute merits of poetry versus fiction versus essays as sources that can shed light on aspects of Korea's past, it is a fact that while very few serious treatments of Yi's essays have been attempted,6 scores of works have been written on his fiction and poetry. Furthermore, Yi's poetry and prose fiction appear largely personal, which is, of course, why they so often require major biographical research and scores of footnotes. They were not meant to communicate with the outside world any more than is a diary. Conversely, his essays, despite the relative neglect they have received from the scholarly establishment, are in form and content deliberate attempts to articulate. It is in his essays that Yi, to the degree that he ever does, provides unequivocal information, both about his internal states and about the everyday life of the societies in which he operated. With this in mind, I will explore the essay "Lingering Impressions of a Mountain Village" to see what it might reveal to us about Yi Sang and his world.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this essay, at least from a post-1945 perspective, is its complete insistence on Yi's own very [End Page 349] personal, decidedly non-national identity. A large part of (South) Korea's post-liberation history-literary and otherwise-has been devoted to making a heterogeneous population appear homogenous under...